Here’s a word from my hometown, Santa Barbara, California, a popular destination for luxury seekers, families, and backpackers as well.
Europeans by the busload and Midwesterners in American cars flock to Santa Barbara, famous for its perfect climate (as perfect as climate can ever be), its sandy beaches and its backdrop of mountain wilderness.

But watch out for that wilderness — recent fires have taken a grim toll, 80 houses burned  a couple of weeks ago, and more than 200 last fall. The brush is oily though dry, so caution is crucial. No smoldering cigarettes or carelessly doused barbecue fires.

Still, there’s so much beauty here, on the “American Riviera”   – so-called because of its south-facing shoreline.

Beyond the heavily touristed town, check out the offshore islands that shelter the coastline from the wide Pacific — Channel Islands National Park. Close to the mainland, but protected from development, the five islands, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara, are a place where you can experience California as it was centuries ago.

On these islands, relative isolation over thousands of years created animals, plants, and archeological resources found nowhere else on Earth.
Since acquiring the islands from ranchers and private owners, the National Park Service has worked to remove feral pigs and other animals and non-native plants, allowing such creatures as the Island Fox to make a comeback.

In 2006, the first bald eagle chick to hatch unaided by humans on the Channel Islands in more than 50 years made headlines across the country.

Thanks to the public interest, federal agencies and the Ventura County Office of Education established a webcam that brought live, streaming images of the chick and its parents into the schools and homes of millions of Americans.

This year, the webcam has been reestablished on Santa Cruz Island to again allow for watching the comings and goings at the bald eagle nest. The solar-powered camera runs daily 8 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. To check out the webcam, Visit “Channel Islands Live.”

Back in town, the place to see and be seen is State Street. Weekdays, weekends, anytime, strollers drift through the downtown area, shop in dozens of stores both trendy and chain, and dine in award-winning restaurants and at sidewalk cafes, visit an amazingly well stocked art museum, attend events at the newly renovated Granada Theater (a $60 million restoration project that makes the Granada a world-class theater), and head down the street toward the waterfront, checking out a lively bar scene that revs up in the afternoon and hums until 2 a.m. (Some parts of it even mumble quietly in the morning.)

At the risk of sounding like a tourist office, I really am impressed with the spectacular natural setting and the wealth of other attractions in this “picture postcard town.”

Some hotel owners have complained to the local press that their occupancy rates have fallen over the past few months. One said her hotel’s two-night requirement was cut because visitors coming up for the weekend from the Los Angeles area didn’t want to stay the second night.
But when I drive across town from my home near the beach to a friend’s house on the Riviera (where the mountains begin), it seems to me there are more people around than ever!

Bed-and-breakfast places in grand old Victorian houses near the downtown are popular with visitors. Google “Santa Barbara Bed and Breakfast.”
The Upham Hotel on De la Vina Street, with its Louie’s Restaurant, built in 1871, is one of my favorite places to recommend.
In our neighborhood, several entire furnished houses, owned by people who live elsewhere, are turned over to rental agencies to offer to tourists. Some visitors stay a week, two weeks, a month, or, occasionally, for an entire season. Google “Santa Barbara Vacation Rentals” to find these. Also check out “santabarbara.com” for local tourist information.

Come for the theater and gourmet dining, sightseeing and whale-watching, sailing and surfing, hiking and biking. Visit the Natural History Museum and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and dozens of art galleries selling the works of hundreds of local artists. Ride the 25-cent tourist bus along State Street, down to the wharf and left to the hotels along Cabrillo Boulevard.

And pick up the Santa Barbara Independent, the local newspaper that comes out every Thursday with listings of the week’s events.
Just don’t drive your car down State Street unless you want a slow-moving panorama of tourists, strollers, students and a few showoffs (the guy with the rat on the cat on the dog, the snake charmer, a panhandler or two, the amplified musicians in front of Borders Bookstore), and — waiting at a stoplight to cross State Street, trying to get across town — me in my Altima.